Tuesday, May 10, 2011

May 10, 2011– Parenting With Cancer

Here’s a new blog that’s worth checking in on from time to time. Parenting With Cancer is the brainchild of a New Jersey NHL survivor, Jen Singer. Her two sons are now in junior high. At the time she was undergoing chemotherapy and losing her hair, they were in elementary school.

A cancer diagnosis is devastating at any age, but for parents of young kids it’s especially hard. What do you tell them? How much will they understand? How to cut back on day-to-day responsibilities and concentrate on healing, when there are young lives depending on you 24/7 for care and nurture?

Our son Ben was in college and our daughter Ania was in high school when I was diagnosed. It was tough enough figuring out how to break the news to them, at that comparatively older age. I can only imagine what it must have been like for Jen, and others in similar circumstances, to tell their much-younger children they’d soon be seeing their mother without any hair.

Kids may not comprehend all the medical details, but at every age they do tend to pick up on the general emotional tenor of the household. I wouldn’t advise parents in Jen’s situation to try to hide the news from their young children. Better to tell them a little, in as non-anxious a way as you can, then wait for them to tell you if they want to know more. Now, here’s the tricky part. Young kids may not be equipped to ask you, in so many words, to tell them more, but even if they aren’t, kids will generally send non-verbal messages that they’re either satisfied or unsatisfied with the briefing you’ve just given them.

I also think it’s OK to get emotional in front of them, if that’s what it takes to be honest and real. You can’t use a young child as your therapist, of course, but for them to see mommy or daddy cry or express anger – and thereby learn that the sky doesn’t fall when that happens – is not a bad thing. Just remember, strength comes in many different packages. Clint Eastwood’s patented squinty-eyed, stone-faced, curled-lip impassivity is only one way of showing it (and probably not the best, in such circumstances). Just think of what a learning it could be for kids to watch their parents wrestle with how to adapt to a really tough piece of news, and come out at the other end of the struggle with an accommodation to the new normal.

Jen talks of listening to a priest’s homily about how wonderful heaven is, a message that she, as a parent and cancer survivor, was not ready to hear. In light of the glories of heaven, the priest was saying, how do we account for human fears of death, except as a stubborn fear of the unknown? Jen’s response:

“Not me. I have a fear of the known. And here’s what I know: If I die and go to Heaven today, I will not be here to raise my children — something I came awfully close to four years ago when doctors found a tumor the size of a softball in my chest.

I wanted to interrupt the priest’s homily, to tell him and the entire congregation that while Heaven sure sounds lovely, I have responsibilities here on earth — two of them — and they aren’t done being raised.”

She also admits to feeling a bit of survivor’s guilt, as she attends the funeral of a neighbor (another young mother), who died of ovarian cancer:

“As I snaked my way through the crowd, hugging person after person that I recognized from town, I realized, This could have been my funeral. And suddenly, I stopped walking. I stopped hugging people. I stopped looking at photos of my neighbor on vacation, on Christmas, at the school where our sons were in kindergarten together.

I stopped and thought about my own kids four years ago, when I was just two months from what could have been my own funeral.

And yet my neighbor is gone and I'm here.”

A cookie-cutter approach to coping with cancer is impossible. We’re all of us different, in one way or another, so we’ve got to chart our own path.

Still, Jen Singer describes herself as a “cancer sherpa.” Like those legendary Himalayan guides, she’s offering her mountain-climbing savvy to others setting out on the journey for a first time. For cancer survivors with young kids, her blog is well worth bookmarking.


Anonymous said...



Prostate Cancer said...

I agree, it truly is difficult to face cancer while trying to take care of young children. I guess one should just use their children as inspiration to fight through the cancer treatments so that they would live longer fuller lives.